Michigan State wraps up spring ball on April 26, and for head coach Mark Dantonio, the final spring session will be about the defense continuing to show growth. The Spartans are replacing key pieces and while the new faces have exhibited flashes, Saturday's showcase will be a chance to continue to improve under the eyes of plenty of Sparty fans.
Dantonio's team stands as the reigning Big Ten and Rose Bowl champions, following a magical 2013 campaign in which the Green and White piled up 13 wins. The backbone of that effort was the defense that finished near the top of every major defensive category.
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Saturday's defense will not be that same unit. Linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen are gone. Defensive backs Isaiah Lewis and Darqueze Dennard are also taking the next step in their football careers. Reserve linebacker Kyler Elsworth, who had a stellar game replacing Bullough in the Rose Bowl, is no longer a part of the team.
2014 is not 2013, something plenty at Michigan State have acknowledged. As Connor Cook told CBS Sports' Bruce Feldman, relaying the words of coach Ken Mannie:
It's 2014. We don't wanna feel like we've made it now. It's the ultimate goal at Michigan State to win the Rose Bowl, but we're all not walking around campus like, Oh yeah, we've made it now?' We want to continue to stay hungry, continue to stay focused. We've pushed that aside. We're not still relishing the victory.
And for this defense, a unit replacing plenty of key pieces in the back seven, there certainly is no time to live in a moment created in January.
Growth, especially up front, has been a constant for the Michigan State defense throughout spring. Shilique Calhoun is the returning anchor, but both Demetrius Cooper and Lawrence Thomas have shown that the defensive end position will be an area of true strength in 2014. Cooper, a player Michigan State stuck with despite serious injuries in high school as MLive.com reported, has added weight and finds himself sitting behind Calhoun on the depth chart.
Thomas, a 2011 signee, was a 4-star inside linebacker according to 247Sports, weighing 244 pounds. He now sits behind Marcus Rush on the depth chart as a 294-pound defensive end. That comes after redshirting in 2011, playing as a fullback for much of 2012 and settling at end while working to get healthy in 2013. As safety Kurtis Drummond told the Detroit Free Press, Thomas is "an animal" at the position.
Monsters up front are going to be a plus for Michigan State, and seeing that growth in the spring game should help ease the worry about the defense in East Lansing. Pressure on the edge, coupled with a rotation that should keep bodies fresh, means the line should help the back end as the secondary replaces Lewis and Dennard.
Saturday will be about Darian Hicks, Jermaine Edmondson, Ezra Robinson and Arjen Colquhoun showing the drop-off at the corner spot will not be crippling. Dennard was one of the nation's best at the position, and as the capable Trae Waynes moves into that spot, the field corner position must be capably manned.
The corners make this defense go and the replacement options will be on display to show just how ready they are to step in and play. Each of the listed players—Hicks, Edmondson, Robinson and Colquhoun—has game experience, and Saturday will be about pushing for more time.
Which leads to the major area to watch in the spring game: linebackers. Taiwan Jones slides over from star to Mike. Darien Harris steps into the starting lineup, and folks will get a chance to see him and Jones operate. Ed Davis, expected to be the starter at Sam in the fall, is out for spring, which means reserves Riley Bullough, Shane Jones and Sean Harrington will be filling in his stead.
Which piece of the Spartans defense is the toughest to replace?
Replacing Max Bullough and Denicos Allen is the hardest thing this Spartans defense, and this Spartans team, has to do for the 2014 campaign. Allen was a dynamic playmaker who could run, understand how to get pressure and be a terror for offenses. Bullough was a Steady Eddie performer whose primary role was to be the true quarterback of the defense, directing traffic as offenses shifted and helping solve riddles to ensure defensive success.
Jones has the physical skills to replace Bullough, but to continue the defensive success folks in East Lansing have grown accustomed to, the senior has to emerge as a vocal force of leadership. That part is not easy and that part will be what coaches are watching for, as the team takes the field for the spring game.
Dantonio, and defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, understand this unit is a work in progress, and it has to continue to show growth. Up front that means growing into a rotation that can stop the run and consistently get pressure. In the secondary, growth is most notably about filling Dennard's absence.
And for those linebackers, it comes down to growing into bigger roles and, most importantly, finding a way to communicate to get the defense functioning as a unit.